It was a long, long time ago. We were all alone on Christmas Eve. Having read the second chapter of Luke and as the tree lights blinked slowly in the dark, my wife Debi, son Eric, and I considered what to do. Traditionally, one of our family gatherings—the McLey side of the family—took place on Christmas Eve. But as sometimes happens in families, in an attempt to accommodate multiple scheduling considerations, the McLey’s joined together on another day. So there we were, alone, quietly pondering what to do on the night before Christmas.
We hurriedly scanned the newspaper for word of a Christmas Eve service, but couldn’t find anything suitable. So on a lark I suggested that my wife call The Open Door Mission. We had long written checks to the Mission a few times each year. They were on our list of favorite charities. One Thanksgiving, we drove up to the back door and dropped off a couple of turkeys and some old clothes. We felt so noble. But in fact, it was the closest we had ever come to the inside of the building, or the people inside the building.
As my wife hung up the phone in the kitchen, it sounded like we had an invite. She said the person that answered the phone cheerily invited us to “Come on down.” Indeed there was a Christmas Eve service, it started in an hour, and we were invited. We had just enough time to change clothes and drive to the east side of town for worship. As we headed out the door, I ask my wife what kind gathering they had planned. It’s been long enough ago, that I can’t remember her exact reply, but the bottom line was—she didn’t have a clue.
I remember being warmly welcomed. Our hosts were gracious as could be. The usher wanted to make sure that we were comfortable and had a good view, so he took us to the middle section, about three rows back, as if we were special guests of some kind.
First, there were gifts for all, mittens, gloves, and warm winter coats. Toys for the children. Bags stuffed with toothpaste, shampoo, and hand soap. Each person had a wrapped present to open. As names were called, each person made the walk from the pew, down the aisle, and up to the front. As each present was given, many of the residents had tears in their eyes. A few seemed embarrassed. Their sense of gratitude was palpable, as if each one had been given a rare diamond.
As I surreptitiously glanced around me, watching the charity procession, something didn’t seem quite as I anticipated. I had expected a mixed group, patrons, donors, staff, and some residents. What became slowly, but increasingly apparent was that we were the only non-residents in the entire congregation. That horrible feeling of being overdressed and out of place rushed over me, a nauseously sheepish sense of foreboding.
We had crashed a private party and I nervously started looking for the nearest exit sign.
Before we could escape, the first group hymn commenced. As the early bars of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” filled the room, I smelled beer wafting through the congregation. Half way through the song, when the feeble old man to our left—with a weeks worth of beard stubble and a crooked smile—leaned down to put his arm around my eight year-old son, I realized the source of the beer smell.
Pastor Bob Timberlake delivered a message of hope and joy. It was short, sweet, simple, and moving.
As the night continued to unfold, I remember forgetting about myself. A warm glow, a relaxed sense of well being, saturated my soul. As millions worshiped around the world with us on Christmas Eve, I had the sense that on this night, we were exactly where we needed to be.
Then the band played. You have never seen such a rag-tag group of musicians in your life. The brass was tarnished and bent. Their clothes were threadbare and their instruments were out of tune and out of time. Still, they played. And I cried.
In “Hold Me Jesus,” Rich Mullins wrote:
And the Salvation Army band
Is playing this hymn
And Your grace rings out so deep
It makes my resistance seem so thin
Whenever I hear that song, in my mind’s eye I see those homeless men playing their hearts out, with kindness, gratitude, and love in their hearts. The lump in my throat twitches, and nearly explodes. And I’m thankful and joyful. Not because I’m not like them, but because I want to be like them. It’s the opposite of superiority; it’s something like humility.
As the service concluded, we were greeted sweetly by our new friends. Pastor Bob smiled, approached us, and hugged our necks. He asked us to come back for a tour after New Years Day and we talked about more personal ways in which we might be able to help the Mission.
As we left, he apologized that the group didn’t have a gift for us. Pastor Bob has since gone on to be with the Lord, but I hope on this night—The Night Before Christmas at The Open Door Mission—that he sensed through our misty eyes and feeble, Thank you, that his group had delivered a most precious gift, a heartfelt memory which our family opens every year at about this time.